Sunday 8 March 2020

A Wolverhampton Wanderer 6th March 2020

A lovely spring like day of sunshine and gentle wind persuaded me to make my way northwards to the unlikely birding destination of Wolverhampton, a city that lurks in the heart of England's Black Country.

In the early afternoon I found myself driving into the city's outskirts, a depressing landscape of urban ribbon development with scruffy garages, stark, functional blocks of flats, used car lots, dingy parades of shops, and endless traffic lights that controlled every intersection on the road, reducing my progress to one of start, stop and start again, bringing a constant anxiety of whether I was in the correct traffic lane, knowing the traffic would be unforgiving of any error on my part. I made my way towards signs for the city centre and then swung onto the ring road, being guided by my Satnav towards a large open area of parkland imaginatively named West Park, that lay but a mile from the centre of the city.

Wolverhampton is probably best known for its famous football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, but the wanderer I sought was not an overpriced and overpaid footballer but a wanderer of a different sort, a Ferruginous Duck that had taken up, for reasons best known to itself, temporary residence on one of the two lakes inside West Park.

The attraction and the lure that brought me to a place I would not otherwise contemplate visiting was that the duck I sought was a very attractive male of a species that is unusual in Britain and this individual, from all the reports I had seen, was obliging in allowing one to get reasonably close to it.

Following the Satnav directions around the ring road I found myself turning away from the relentless traffic onto a long, left sweeping curve and then driving along a short side road to a junction at the end, where opposite lay the wrought iron gates and perimeter railings of West Park and, refreshingly, free parking for the car right outside. The road encircling the park was lined with pleasing Victorian houses and trees and I had a distinct feeling of entering another Wolverhampton, an echo of how it must have been, bringing a mood change entirely at odds with the one I felt earlier, when negotiating the concrete anonymity of a city and its population now in thrall, as in all cities, to traffic and the roads required to keep it moving.

I entered the park, which started life as a racecourse in 1825 but was converted to a park and opened to the public in June 1881, covering forty three acres with promenades, gardens, mature trees and two lakes, one for boating and one that is left to the wildfowl and gulls. West Park is now considered to be one of the finest unspoilt examples of a Victorian Park to be found anywhere in England.Who would have thought it, in Wolverhampton of all places!

Making my way past the restored bandstand, which to this day is used on summer weekends, I walked towards the west lake where the Ferruginous Duck was to be found. The park is but ten minutes walk from the city centre and was certainly popular on this day of sunshine, a pleasant focal point for the local population amongst the urban surroundings, with many families, young mothers with children and couples of all ages, sitting on the benches around the lake.

At first  I could not locate the duck and made my way round the lake's periphery checking through my bins every so often.There was a small wooded island in the centre of the lake with some Tufted Ducks hanging about under its bank but I could find no sign of the Ferrruginous Duck there. I moved on and a small, slim duck swam out from under the branches of a tree overhanging the lake's edge. A quick glance was enough to confirm I had found the Ferruginous Duck.

Note the black collar at the base of its neck a plumage feature that can only be
seen from close range and at certain angles

Sadly it did not stop and swam strongly out and away from the bank, its departure being made all the more certain by the unwelcome scrutiny of numerous Black headed Gulls, which seemed to recognise it was unusual, a stranger and therefore deserving of their malign attentions.This caused it to crash dive to escape the gulls and then swim even further into the middle of the lake, towards the island. I inwardly cursed the gulls as, not for the first time, they managed to confound my aspirations.

The Ferruginous Duck swam surprisingly quickly across the lake, by-passing the island, covering the distance more rapidly than I expected. It appeared restless, uneasy about the many gulls present, unsure on this unfamiliar lake, of where to go to seek somewhere it would be left to itself.

It arrived at the other side of the lake, joining a trio of Tufted Ducks, a stranger seeking out, as lost birds often do, the nearest thing to its own kind. A re-assurance. A comfort maybe. It commenced to dive and feed with the Tufted Ducks. When I caught up with it, no sooner had I done so than it swam rapidly back to the middle of the lake and continued to do this for most of the time I was admiring it in the park. It was, for this afternoon at least, never really settled although it has been here for eight days now.

There is always a question in one's mind about the provenance of ducks such as this. Always a nagging doubt. Can they really be wild or have they escaped from a wildfowl collection? No one can ever know for certain. All I can say is that it demonstrated more wariness than the wild Tufted Ducks present, it was unringed and could fly. Its plumage was pristine and showed no signs of wear from being in captivity. But always there is a doubt and one just has to make one's own mind up.

Ferruginous Ducks are normally distributed fom Iberia and North Africa east to Mongolia and south to Saudi Arabia. Western populations winter in the Mediterranean and Black Sea and eastern birds winter in south and south eastern Asia. Almost inevitably, following the depressing trend of diminishing bird populations it has become a scarce and declining species  in the western parts of its range due to habitat degradation and hunting and is now giving conservation concern. 

I admired this handsome drake. Its head and breast in particular a rich rufous, shining like a piece of polished mahogany, radiant in the sun, its flanks paler in colour and less rich in tone. The back was dark brown and there was a prominent white area under the tail. This duck has white eyes, prominent and startling by way of contrast with its rufous head, the eyes like small white marbles with pinprick black pupils giving rise to its alternative but now defunct names of White-eyed Duck or White-eyed Pochard. A bluish grey bill with a black nail at its tip complemented the pleasing appearance. Compared to the rounder, squat, more robust Tufted Ducks, its form was distinctive in being slightly smaller, slimmer, with a noticeably longer neck and thinner bill and a head with a sloping forehead rising to a prominent peaked crown. The Tufted Ducks were content to accept its company and the Ferruginous Duck maintained a loose association whenever it could with them. The last I saw of it, before departing, was with a group of Tufted Ducks that were swimming aimlessly, back and fore, under the bank of the wooded island. I even saw it displaying to the Tufted Ducks in a half hearted manner on one occasion. Needless to say it was ignored.

I have, over the years, seen eight Ferruginous Ducks in Britain, male and female, even one on the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve in my home county of Oxfordshire. This latest individual in Wolverhampton has proved very popular, with many people going to see it.

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